❉ Richard Marson captures well Biddy’s passion and infectious enthusiasm for Blue Peter, writes Han Cooper.
“Richard’s biographical style is compelling as he finds ways to keep hooking you in. It’s clear that a tremendous amount of research went into this book, with numerous references to elements previously buried in the archives.”
Richard Marson is in the unique position of being an experienced biographer as well as a former producer and editor of Blue Peter, making him the ideal person to produce the story of the show’s most famous editor with Biddy Baxter: The Woman Who Made Blue Peter.
Richard has previously written acclaimed biographies on two Doctor Who producers in Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner and Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert. The career paths of those subjects enabled him to cover relatively wide areas of television, but while Biddy’s devotion to one programme naturally means less variety, this latest book still manages to include many fascinating areas. As well as a history of Biddy Baxter’s life and Blue Peter, it provides historical insight into management culture, the nature of employee and employer relationships, the perception of children’s television, approaches to publicity, attitudes to health and safety, and changes within the BBC. There is plenty more I could list.
This is the first of Richard’s biographies to cover a subject that is still living and in his introduction he makes clear his own professional and personal relationship with Biddy, acknowledging the extra challenges that gave him as a biographer. However, there is a good sense of objectivity in Richard’s style. He is able to assess how Biddy’s qualities could be strengths, as well as having the potential to negatively impact situations. It’s been well-known that Biddy divided opinion. As with his previous biographies, Richard has once again sought contributions from a wide range of people from across Biddy’s life.
The book’s sheer number of contributors means that plenty of the interviewees are able to provide a balance of critical and favourable commentary. Yvette Fielding is one of the few Blue Peter presenters not represented in her own words. Alongside her ex-colleagues’ comments about her period on the programme, her decision to turn down a contribution speaks for itself. Even presenter Sarah Greene, who appears to have had a relatively good working relationship with Biddy, describes her as ‘Terrifying on some occasions,’ and words like ‘terrifying’ frequently come up in people’s descriptions of Biddy.
Once young newcomers who spent their early years working under Biddy on Blue Peter are now able to reflect on those days with several decades of experience and success. There is certainly criticism that Biddy’s way of working didn’t suit everyone, that her behaviour wouldn’t be acceptable in the present day and perhaps shouldn’t have been even at the time. Production assistant Liz Trubridge reflects, ‘I don’t think she’d last five minutes now. I don’t think anybody would tolerate that form of behaviour. It’s all “respect in the workplace” now and there wasn’t a lot of that going on.’
But this is where the advantage of having such a breadth of interviewees has its impact. It begins to become apparent that people’s experiences of Biddy could be very personal. Assistant producer Greg Childs relates one incident, saying, ‘I both hated her and had enormous respect for her at the same time – because she was right,’ which reflects an ongoing theme that Biddy didn’t care about being popular – she cared about doing a good job for the programme.
Most appear to have either thrived or floundered under Biddy. Christina Mackay started with the Blue Peter Correspondence Unit and is one of several to describe Biddy as encouraging, also commenting, ‘I was a bit scared of Biddy, if I’m honest, but in a really healthy way. I think that’s what is lacking in life today. People are not accountable. You need to be and you should want to please your boss.’ It’s also insightful to see the examples of where Biddy defended or spoke up for her team, whether outside the programme within the BBC or to the wider world. I enjoyed her charming response after the Mother’s Union had written to her about presenter Janet Ellis having a baby out of wedlock.
Richard’s biographical style is compelling as he finds ways to keep hooking you in. It’s clear that a tremendous amount of research went into this book, with numerous references to elements previously buried in the archives. This wider research does offer information that occasionally challenges contributors’ statements or at least provide fairer and more balanced insight. There is an interesting dive into presenters’ pay, the reasons why it would have been constrained at certain times, as well as the extent of Biddy’s efforts to increase it. This kind of examination of details makes for many enlightening passages.
Among Richard’s other skills is the ability to set the scene well. He does this in ways that envelope us and conjure up the imagery we need to enter Biddy’s world at different points. Early on, I was drawn in to his description of Television Centre’s East Tower – where the Blue Peter office was located – with imagery of the work environment Biddy would have experienced each day. Just as I could imagine myself around Verity Lambert’s dinner table previously, I enjoyed feeling like a fly on the wall of the Biddy Baxter Blue Peter office.
Aside from Richard’s style of letting his interviewees words tell a life story as much as possible, I think one of the most valuable aspects of his approach is that he doesn’t assume too much of his readers. His ‘A Note on Job Titles’ section is a great example of this. It provides a brief but clear guide to the main responsibilities for different roles behind the scenes on Blue Peter. It is valuable context for contributors’ comments and ideal for any readers who might not have delved into much reading on television history before.
It’s also noticeable that Richard doesn’t necessarily expect readers to have full knowledge of the period the book covers – this certainly isn’t nostalgia for former child viewers – yet his succinctness ensures that those with some knowledge won’t ever feel bogged down. He does this well if he needs to provide some historical context, such as when discussing presenter Michael Sundin. As the conversation turns to Michael’s sexuality, Richard is able to swiftly summarise attitudes to homosexuality in Britain at the time and how that was relevant for Biddy and Blue Peter. Whether it’s societal or industry history – like the changing broadcasting landscape during the 1990s – he moves the story forward quickly to keep the focus on Biddy.
What Richard has ultimately captured well throughout is Biddy’s passion for Blue Peter, with an infectious enthusiasm (‘to the point of being an energy vampire’ is one description) that always got things done. Whether it was the content of a programme item, how the Blue Peter Appeal was promoted each year, or exactly when to cut between shots on certain types of items, she cared deeply about achieving the best the programme could. She worked hard to overcome obstacles and believed that everyone else should have that same dedication, regardless of what they thought of her personally. Assistant producer Peter Dale undoubtedly reflects some of Biddy’s own bluntness when he comments that, ‘She would make it very clear, if you’re not dedicated to it, then fuck off and do something else.’
All or nothing appears to have been Biddy’s life mantra. The detail of life after Blue Peter is interestingly informative too, demonstrating how she put her exceptional skills to use elsewhere. It also enables the reader to infer other areas of success Biddy might have had if she had wanted to pursue different opportunities.
Part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read is that it’s about someone who spent years doing a job they loved. Like Richard’s previous books, it’s a fantastic and fascinating read for anyone with an interest in television. Here’s hoping he continues to find more equally interesting subjects in the future.
❉ Biddy Baxter: The Woman Who Made Blue Peter – Richard Marson (Tenacre Films, 2023). Softcover: 156mm x 244 format; 336 pages in black and white, plus 32-page photo insert in black and white and colour. RRP £17.99.
❉ Hannah Cooper has spent the last few years travelling back in time to visit numerous TV programmes and she occasionally returns to the present day to write about them. Her work can be viewed at backintimefortv.co.uk and she can be found on Twitter as @MrsSimonTemplar.